Liberal authoritarianism

25 03 2016

An aged former prime minister who served twice but was never elected seems like an unlikely source for advice on democracy. That he served a military junta and then was put in place by the king in an arguably unconstitutional move should add to considerable doubt about his credentials.


But this is the Teflon-coated patrician Anand Panyarachun, sometimes seen as one of Thailand’s “liberal” royalists. So it is that the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand decides to invite the old liberal royalist to give his views, yet again. Some journalists have tweeted and gone on social media making out that Anand is someone who must be taken seriously while posing with him in photos as if he is a celebrity.

The Straits Times refers to Anand as “Thailand’s elder statesman…. Today, he remains among a handful of people with the stature to be able to speak his mind even under a military government.”

What the article should probably have stated is that he is one of the few to be able to speak and not fear detention. Others speak their mind, but are harassed because they say things that are interpreted as critical of the junta. Anand is essentially a junta supporter. He supported both the 2006 and 2014 military-palace coups. He doesn’t say anything that is likely to get the junta steamed up.

The truth is that Anand is a royalist authoritarian who seeks to cloak his anti-democratic perspectives in a language of “transparency,” “anti-corruption,” “human rights” and a decidedly technocratic language for Western audiences is interpreted in Thailand as the code of a supporter of the anti-democrats.

Anand’s speech is reproduced at the Bangkok Post. Interestingly, the only persons cited in it are the king – ho hum – Gandhi and a rightist libertarian (rather than a liberal).

It is a Khaosod report that shows the anti-democrat authoritarian. Anand declared that “people [he means Western critics and the journalists he spoke to] should not see coups and their makers in black or white, adding that those in Thailand are different from those in Africa or Latin America.” He defended the “unique nature of [Thailand’s] military coups.”

Ignoring the military’s repeated use of war weapons against its own people, “Anand said coups in Thailand are bloodless and nonviolent…”. He went further:

They are not brutal and bloody,” Anand said of the 12 “successful” coups in the eight-decades of modern political history. “I am not proud of that, but the damage is relatively insignificant.”

We understand that he needs to dissemble in order to support the 2014 coup, but he does this by ignoring mass murder. He ignores 1976, the attempts by the military to stay in power in 1973 and 1992, and the more generalized use of deadly force against civilians, most recently in April and May 2010. This is crude elite justification of military rule and its murderous past.

FDIHe also went into liar mode when he said “the most recent coup that installed the military regime of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha in May 2014 hasn’t deterred foreign investment.” The real picture is in the graph.

If on looks at Board of Investment data, the declines following the coup are even sharper, as shown in the graphs from the Nikkei Asian Review.BOI

He defended the current junta:

At one point Anand was asked by a Singaporean journalist if the current military regime is capable of pushing for reform.

“Just because because they are a military government, it doesn’t mean they are stupid or always stupid,” he said.

Asked about democracy in Thailand, he said: “I’m not apologetic about the slow pace of the development of democracy.  I am sure I will not live to see it. I am 83.”

It is clear that the talk of human rights, rule of law, transparency and so on are not elements of a democratic Thailand but of a technocratic and authoritarian Thailand. When “liberal royalists” preach it is self-interested class warfare.

He even blames the “people” for the longevity of the military: “I think in a way that helps the present military regime to survive, because quite a number of people still give them credit for restoring peace and order.”

He does not blame his own class as the ones who cheer the military and benefit from its repressive power, again and again. He may not want a military regime for years to come, but he knows his class needs the military.

WikiLeaks, Clinton and Yingluck

24 03 2016

WikiLeaks now has a Hillary Clinton Email Archive. Its pages states:

On March 16, 2016 WikiLeaks launched a searchable archive for 30,322 emails & email attachments sent to and from Hillary Clinton’s private email server while she was Secretary of State. The 50,547 pages of documents span from 30 June 2010 to 12 August 2014. 7,570 of the documents were sent by Hillary Clinton. The emails were made available in the form of thousands of PDFs by the US State Department as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request. The final PDFs were made available on February 29, 2016.

A simple search for “Thailand” produces 73 results, several of which seem barely relevant, with Thailand simply mentioned. PPT hasn’t been through all of these cables as yet.

One that has gained some social media attention, not least via a Facebook post by Andrew MacGregor Marshall, is about Yingluck Shinawatra, the 2011 floods and a visit by Clinton. It is originally from Karen Brooks and forwarded by Kurt Campbell, and dated 16 November 2011. Some interesting bits of this cable are clipped and included below.

Yingluck Clinton

On the politics of the floods:

To keep momentum, Yingluck will need to make changes in her team. Given the poor performance of the past two months, a cabinet reshuffle is a must do. Top of the list is Agriculture Minister Theera Wongsamut, who hails from the Chart Thai Pattana party – a coalition partner but at best a fair-weather friend. Not only has Theera been inept in his handling of the crisis since Yingluck took office (water management being part of his portfolio), but he also served as Agriculture Minister in the previous Abhisit-led government. He is thus seen (correctly) as guilty of either malice or incompetence (or both) for his failure to appropriately manage water levels at the country’s two biggest dams in the months preceding the inauguration of the Yingluck government – which greatly exacerbated the current crisis.

On Yingluck and her work:

She is tired…. Very tired. I saw her last night at her house at 11pm and she told me that she is up around the clock with very little support and a cabinet team that has proven weak (her words were less diplomatic) and unable to rise to the occasion. She said she always expected the job would be hard, but that learning everything about government, while managing. the complexities of the relationship with the palace and the military, while being slammed with a major national crisis – AND doing it all with a weak team – has taken its toll. Even so, she is determined and has fire in the belly. She emphasized that she had won an absolute majority for only the second time in thai history, and that she would not let the millions of thais who supported her down. If it means not resting until her term is over, so be it. She can handle it, she said, because she believes in what she is doing. She will make some changes in her cabinet in the coming weeks once the water has been drained, and then look forward to getting the A Team back in May of next year, when the ban expires on the 111 Thai Rak Thai politicians removed from politics by the courts in 2007 after the coup.

Yingluck on reconciliation:

She made a point of saying that she is ENORMOUSLY grateful that Sec Clinton is coming today. “It’s been six long years of turmoil in this country,” she said. “I’m determined to use my mandate to bring people together and foster reconciliation, like I said in the campaign. I’m working hard to win over the military and help them see they have a real place here without interfering in politics. I’m working hard to do the same with the palace. But let’s face it: democracy here is still fragile. We need the US engaged.”

On General Prayuth Chan-ocha and not bringing down the government (just then):

Yingluck tell me she has gone out of her way to work cooperatively with Prayuth, and Prayuth seems to have come to appreciate her sincerity and hard work.

On the relationship with the palace:

The Palace, similarly, has not shown any inclination to use the crisis to bring down the government. The King has given three audiences (made public) to PM Yingluck since she took office. (In the opaque world of the Thai monarchy, this is one key tea leaf to read.) Moreover, other members of the royal family have given the PM private audiences in recent weeks (not publicly known) – including the Crown Prince and two of the princesses. Perhaps most telling, however, is the recent appointment by the government of two palace favorites, Dr. Sumet [Tantivejkul] and Dr. Veerapong [Virabongsa Ramangkura], to the new reconstruction and water management committees. Sumet, who is a long time advisor to His Majesty and runs one of his foundations, would never have accepted the appointment if the King had not explicitly blessed the move. Two others on the water committee are similarly associated with His Majesty.

To be honest, PPT had not previously seen Virabongsa mentioned as a “palace favorite.”

On Thaksin Shinawatra and amnesty or pardon:

Yingluck told me big brother remains in a dialogue with the palace described as “constructive” and expressed hope that this would yield an amicable end to the five+ year drama of his exile – either through a royal pardon or through a parliament sponsored amnesty law, with support from the palace. This is, at best, a delicate dance, and any mishandling or miscalculation on Thaksin’s part could yet trigger another cycle of political drama here.

Another 20 years of military bossiness

15 03 2016

The Dictator has log babbled about a 20-year “reform” agenda, beating the previous post-coup record established by the royal favorite Thanin Kraivixien, who set a 12-year time frame.

In the bid to keep the military in power or in a place where it can trump any elected or vaguely constitutional regime, The Dictator has returned to this 20-year “plan” which he calls “Pracha Rat,”  and developed for him by the likes of royalist conservative Prawase Wasi and multiple NGO anti-democrats who remain skeptical of people power and of the capacity of the grassroots to engage in politics. Electoral democracy scares the silk pants off middle class do-gooders and the military.

The Nation reports that General Prayuth Chan-ocha* has declared that 20 years is “essential to ensure sustainable development of the Kingdom…”. In this, “sustainable” is another genuflection to the anti-democrats and an attempt to coax them across to support for ongoing military interference and bossiness.

Prayuth stated that to sustain “Pracha Rat and its goals … there should be an emphasis on judicial assurances, the integrated participation of all sectors of society, the empowerment of state agencies, and continued public support for the national strategy.” All of this is anti-democrat code, telling them that if they do not agree to military oversight, their “reform,” fixing the judiciary, weakening elections and boosting the power of the state’s agencies, then Thaksin Shinawatra, the red shirts and the “uneducate” will be back.

He blamed “politicians” for having made people “colour-blinded and short-sighted,” conveniently forgetting that the yellow shirts – the first of the colors – developed with palace and military connivance, the support of politicians in the senate (all the unelected swill) and in the Democrat Party.

*Oddly The Nation refers to Prayuth as a “retired general.” This is a bit much, given that no general ever retires, keeping their moniker, their uniforms and their position in the hierarchy.

Worrying about more crackdowns

10 03 2016

When it comes to crackdowns on “influential people,” there are several reasons to worry.

The first is that the people doing the crackdowns are usually acting in the service of “villains” at the top of the military and police. It is well known that the police and military brass are, almost to a person, “unusually wealthy.” Their wealth is unusual because it far exceeds salaries and is composed of funds from intricate hierarchical webs that transmit ill-gotten gains to the top, with underlings taking percentages. This is why positions are often not just sold, but effectively auctioned.

Second, usually crackdowns are a way for the “villains” at the top of the military and police to sort out criminal arrangements that have come undone. At times, however, when there is political disjuncture or there have been foreign or upstart gangs taking turf or the profit rate has fallen, it is necessary to clean out those other villains who do not serve the king as loyal members of the police and military.

Anyone trust these guys?

Anyone trust these guys?

Third, cracking down on villains is popular. As was seen during Thaksin Shinawatra’s time in power, with the infamous and palace-supported War on Drugs, the public was enthusiastic about getting thugs off their backs. We suspect that this is one important consideration for the military junta is heading down this path. They want more political support for the charter referendum and/or for extending their time in power.

Fourth, “populist” crackdowns can become excuses for extrajudicial murder, as the uniformed villains settle scores and get rid of opponents. When lists are drawn up, they can becomes killing lists.

Fifth, the “dark influences” can be defined in political terms, and the military dictatorship will certainly use the “crackdown” to weaken political opponents. As General Prayuth Chan-ocha explained: “These people could support politicians in the future, and we cannot allow them to break the law and attack the people; we should solve the political crisis to make our country more safe…”.

Sixth, crackdowns tend to be lawless. We understand that the military dictatorship does whatever it wants, but there is some scrutiny. When officials with guns operate at night, there is no scrutiny.

Human rights advocates are right to be worried.

What happens after the king’s death?

27 02 2016

As far as we know, the king has not passed. Yet an op-ed at the Nikkei Asian Review, by Tim Johnston of the International Crisis Group reads very much like a “pre-obituary,” assessing what happens next.

It will surely anger the regime and the royalists in Bangkok, even if it does repeat some of their propaganda about the ailing monarch. It is an interpretation that includes much that is debatable. That said, it is useful to look forward at a time that will be politically fragile.

Johnson seems to have read some of the academic papers that have claimed that it is “middle class” that has driven opposition to what he calls the “traditionalist elite.”  We’d point out that several of these papers actually confuse low-income supporters of red shirts and allies with the middle class.

That aside, let’s continue with his story, where he observes that the “contradictions inherent in this modern, middle-class country ruled by a traditionalist elite are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile.” He addresses this issue in the context of monarchy.

Johnston is wrong that “[t]he media were full of daily reports on his condition as the palace took the unprecedented step of inviting the public into its ceremonial hall to sign a book for well-wishers.” The signing of well wishes has been in place for years and the reports in the media were mainly limited to Royal Household Bureau announcements. Yet, he is right that “it is clear his [king’s] health remains in decline.”

Johnston is also wrong to declare that “Thailand has been a sheet anchor of stability in an otherwise turbulent region. The disputes were occasionally bloody, but tended to be tightly focused in Bangkok; although the shock waves often spread out across the country, the unrest had little material effect on ordinary people or investors outside the epicenter.” He’s wrong because it downgrades the impact of years of military dictatorship and American alliance and he’s wrong to ignore the long war in the south and the two decades of countrywide political struggle that revolved around communist insurgency.

He is right that the past 15 years of political conflict “has created the conditions for the sort of class warfare that could suck the nation and the economy even deeper into the mire.”

Johnston is wrong to declare, as if a palace propagandist, that “[f]or years, the king was the bridge that spanned the divisions that emerged. He has not personally intervened in recent disputes beyond giving formal approval to successive governments as they were thrown up by elections or coups, but that has not stopped a variety of players, mostly notably the military, from invoking his name to justify their policies.” This is errant nonsense. Has he not read The King Never Smiles? Has he not read any of the academic literature on the current monarch?

Armed king

He’s also wrong to confuse fact and propaganda about the king’s alleged work and service while ignoring his wealth and power and the impact of palace propaganda, usually taxpayer funded, over many decades.

He is right that “the king and the monarchy are not interchangeable: the man is much more powerful than the institution, and such power is not heritable.”

Johnston may be right that there “will be a vacuum at the heart of a deeply unstable social and political system.” But he can’t have it both ways and say the king isn’t a political player but then have him at the very center of the political system.King and junta

He declares that the “self-appointed defenders of the monarchy, … have an over-riding interest in ensuring that the succession is to their liking, if necessary through the use of force.”

That’s probably true, especially if the draft charter is any guide. Clearly, in that document, the military and the “traditionalist elite” are seeking to establish “independent agencies” to assume the political role played by the king in maintaining an exploitative and conservative social order.

He’s wrong that the junta is a self-appointed defender of the monarchy. These generals have been very close to the palace for many years. That loyalty is what got them to the top.

Johnston is on target when he observes that:

The opposition, cowed but not defeated by the draconian emergency powers the generals have granted themselves, knows it cannot take on the palace, the army and the bureaucracy while that triumvirate can invoke the moral and personal authority of King Bhumibol. Without his mystique, the elite’s forceful defense of a status quo that has repeatedly disenfranchised large swathes of the population risks appearing as naked self-interest.

On the middle class, Johnston notes that the current reign “has seen Thailand become a middle-income nation, with all the implied middle class aspirations for progress. The government’s attempts to force the country to retreat into a sclerotic theme-park version of Thai tradition looks quixotic and baffles those whom it does not anger.”

Yes and no. Much of the middle class is opposed to democratic reform and is supportive of “good people” defined in conservative terms that are as sclerotic as the junta’s view of “real” Thailand.

We also think he’s right to say that:

The king’s death will be followed by a substantial period of mourning, but political tensions will continue to seethe under the surface. How the generals and the bureaucracy handle the inevitable challenges to their power will determine whether Thailand’s post-Bhumibol social contract will be settled by confrontation or negotiation.

He may be right to speculate that the king’s death will trigger a “damaging identity crisis.” For the military,

which is among various institutions to have fetishized the concept of “Thainess,” such an identity crisis could easily look like an existential crisis, inviting an overreaction to criticism that risks ripping the fabric of Thai society in ways that would take years to repair.

We also think he’s right that “millions of ordinary Thais” have “outgrown the political and economic paternalism” of the past. Johnston’s view that “[f]or Thailand to continue to grow socially and economically, the elite needs to relinquish its hold on power and trust ordinary Thais to play an equal role in determining their future as a shared enterprise.”

The question is whether the elite can do that without being pushed and shoved off its trajectory. To be honest, we doubt it. The International Crisis Group should probably expect more crises in Thailand.

Another Bike for Dad victim

24 01 2016

The military regime’s toadies must feel that sufficient time has passed following the bad publicity associated with the deaths in custody of “lese majeste” suspects Suriyan Sujaritpalawong and Prakrom Warunprapha to get back to the case.

The Bangkok Post reports that a “warrant has been issued for the arrest of a former deputy chief of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) with an alleged link to a high-profile lese majeste case.”

Police Colonel Siwapong Patpongpanit is reportedly facing “charges of negligence of duty in connection with the possession of police radio communication devices.” Police Major Prakrom is said to have requested 100 “radio communication devices.” It isn’t clear if the devices were requested for the Bike for Mom/Bike for Dad events or for duties associated with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn or something else. (We do know that the prince has plenty of communication devices, with all of his many cars have a multitude of aerials.)

The late Pol Maj Prakrom was said to have “more than 200 radio communication devices…”. That’s a lot of communicating!

The police allege that “Pol Col Siwapong, then the deputy CSD chief, handed over the devices to his fellow officer…”.

He has “been under a police watch for suspected links with a lese majeste network led by celebrity fortune-teller Suriyan…. Pol Col Siwapong was transferred to the Central Investigation Bureau before voluntarily resigning from the police service.”

This report reminds us that Jirawong Wattanathewasilp remains in custody. This is odd given that palace-related “lese majeste” cases have generally been resolved in record time, with the “suspects” pleading guilty and immediately being sentenced.

Updated: The lese majeste black hole

13 12 2015

Pravit Rojanaphruk refers to Thailand as “A Kingdom in Denial.” His op-ed refers to the remarkably “efficient” self- and official censorship of Thailand’s mainstream media on anything that might be interpreted as in any way critical of the monarchy. He argues that this process has been “normalized.”

He adds that the flip-side of repression, censorship and the heavy penalties of lese majeste is the ever more ridiculous official veneration of a now invisible monarch and his dysfunctional family.

Pravit is right. But Thailand under the military dictatorship is bleaker than even he suggests.

As Pravit wrote, the junta had its military and police lese majeste thugs out searching for another “dangerous” Facebook fan who clicked “like” on the “wrong” link. They promise that “hundreds” more could follow, filling the jails with political “opponents.”

An military court has issued an arrest warrant for 25-year-old Thanet Anantawong. He “faces charges of lese majeste, inciting disorder and computer crimes.” Reports say he “shared” the same “infographic detailing the alleged [sic.] web of corruption in the Rajabhakti Park scandal.”

A photo from The Straits TimesIn fact, the corruption has been admitted by General Udomdej Sitabutr. He seems to have disappeared from the headlines as the lese majeste witch hunt takes over.

The police say that Thanet “was among a group of student activists who attempted to visit Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin on Monday, but were intercepted by military officers.” Those military officers some in uniform and others disguised as “protesters” against the students, are just one part of the junta’s cover-up of military corruption that extends into the palace.

The military say will be taking Thanakorn, a 27 year-old worker, to a military court tomorrow.

The connection between Corruption Park, the military and the palace is said by the junta to involve “the royal institution indirectly because it includes references to Suriyan “Mor Yong” Sucharitpolwong — the well-known fortune teller charged with lese majeste who recently died in military custody.”

This claim that lese majeste is involved is ludicrous. Given that the military junta brought lese majeste charges against Suriyan, then presumably they must also arrest themselves and everyone else involved with the case. This is the lese majeste vortex at work sucking in and destroying “opponents.” It is at work because the junta is covering up its own corruption with the use of lese majeste charges.

The situation is obvious to everyone but the dictatorship holds all the repressive cards.

Thailand is in a lese majeste repression black hole that operates as a dark vortex. It sucks in not just opponents but deforms everything in the country – institutions, civil society, habits and more. This is not a political transformation but a societal deformation in the interests of an oligarchy that protects its capacity to exploit, consuming the country, its people, everything.

Update: The Bangkok Post reports that Thanet has been arrested and taken to the deadly military prison at the 11th Military Circle. Social media reports that he was snatched from a hospital bed.